From Almonds to Za’atar: A Food Pilgrimage

Beqin Family Dinner

Beqin Family Dinner

We didn’t come here for the food, but eating in Israel and Palestine has opened another window on our experience as pilgrims.

It starts with the markets.  Anyone who has ever been to a Middle Eastern souk will know what I mean.  Piles of every kind of fruit and vegetable, breads, spices, meat, you name it.  Huge cauliflowers.  Oranges that stay green even though they are perfectly ripe.  Pomegranates in every form: whole, seeded or pressed into ruby-red juice.  The baker with fragrant stacks of freshly-baked breads, from the familiar pita to ka’ek, the local bread of Jerusalem, like a giant elongated sesame bagel.  The spice shops full of richly scented earth-toned mysteries, starting with the ever-present za’atar–a mixture of thyme, sesame seeds and magic. The butcher with dressed whole lambs hanging in the window, fleecy tail and (in the case of male lambs) other distinguishing features still intact.  Barrels of pickles in day-glo colors.  And ample supplies for a culture with an obvious sweet tooth:  pastries dripping with honey, dozens of varieties of halvah and turkish delight, and every imaginable shape, color and flavor of gummy candy.

Like so many things in this divided land, food can illustrate the lack of connection between cultures. For example, on our first evening together in Jerusalem, our Palestinian guide Farraj brought malbun, a delicious kind of fruit leather made with grapes, almonds and anise.  Although it is a very typical Palestinian treat, Yuval, our adventurous and well-traveled Israeli guide, had never seen or tasted it.
But we have also seen how food can be a source of identity and  empowerment.   For the farmers growing olives and almonds in Beqin in Northern Palestine, the Canaan Fair Trade cooperative provides a way to bring their products to a broader market, with tapenade and other spreads coming soon to a Whole Foods near you and olive oil available every year at St Mark’s advent sale (try some!).
And more than anything, we have benefitted from the fabled hospitality of this region, as people have generously welcomed us with food and drink and we have connected over a common table.  Our most memorable food experiences are bound up with other kinds of sharing:  of stories, of passions, of simple day-to-day family life.  Children bringing us cold drinks after their father led us up to his rooftop to see the settlements in the heart of the City of David.  Beers and hookah at the “bad kids” table under a Bedouin-inspired tent. Just-picked grapes and figs still warm from the sun, given a quick rinse from the rainwater cistern at the Tent of Nations.  The chef at St George’s Guest House unveiling muqlabeh, the “upside down” dish of rice, chicken, eggplant and other vegetables, with a flourish of banging pots.  Best of all, the unending feast provided by our host family in Beqin:  dates, coffee with cardamom, hummus, felafel, muqlabeh, fried potatoes, home-cured olives, melon seeds, sunflower seeds, tea with much less sugar than our hosts thought appropriate, and I’m sure there would have been more but we were just too tired.
As I said, we did not come here for the food.  But we will take away with us wonderful memories not just of the sights, but also the delicious smells and tastes of the Holy Land.
Karen W.

One thought on “From Almonds to Za’atar: A Food Pilgrimage

  1. Once Again Thank You! As this was not the year for me to travel far. I am enriched daily by your experiences and this one sounds so tantalizing! Blessings, Scilla

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